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Would a confidential drug testing program help out UFC fighters?

By Zach Arnold | November 30, 2011

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As noted by USA Today yesterday, Chris Leben got suspended for a year by the organization after testing positive for painkillers. Not just garden variety painkillers but very strong ones. Trouble has followed him throughout his professional MMA career but the UFC has made no indication of cutting him from their roster.

In the fight game, heavy usage of pain killers, PEDs, sleeping pills, and alcohol (both separate and in concert with each other) is the norm, not the exception. Anyone who is connected to a sport like the NFL or an industry like pro-wrestling can tell you the damage inflicted by heavy usage of painkillers. It’s not just the sports world, either, it’s American society at large. Addiction to prescription drugs is a terrible problem. I have great sympathy for anyone who is suffering from a prescription drug addiction. Of course, I have little to no sympathy for steroid or growth hormone usage.

We’ve seen plenty of wrestlers under the age of 50… hell, under the age of 40, who have dropped dead because of one drug cocktail or another. Don Frye, when he was a guest many years ago on our radio show, openly talked about how much pain guys like him endured in fights. Remember the ankle lock fest with Ken Shamrock in PRIDE? Guys take a beating in the combat sports world and because there are so many shows and such a limited amount of time to make great money, most fighters or wrestlers immediately pop a pill or shoot up with a needle knowing that they only have one chance in their lifetime to make some cash in their chosen profession.

This leads us to an interview that Dr. Johnny Benjamin did with Mauro Ranallo yesterday (audio link here) on the subject of painkiller use & abuse in Mixed Martial Arts, starting with Chris Leben’s situation.

“The common names for those medications (that he got busted for) are Percosets and Dilaudid. These are some of the strongest and most addictive narcotic pain relievers that are on the market. They are derivatives of the Oxycontins and so on and so forth. Here in South Florida where I live, it’s wrecking havoc in this place. The problem is just that — their addictive potential is just off the charts.

“I read all the blog sites and everybody’s all caught up, is it a performance enhancer? It’s a banned substance, it’s not a performance-enhancing substance list, it’s a banned substance list. And this is a place where sports in general and MMA in specific are trying to look out for the well being of the fighters because getting on this type of medication, as anybody will tell you, is very, very, very hard to get off. I don’t call these types of medications, the opiates, the narcotics, the Dilaudids, performance enhancers. I call them performance enablers.”

He’s exactly right. Semi-retired wrestler Lance Storm talks about how dangerous taking painkillers can be because when you are injured and feeling the pain, you’re body is telling you to stop and you’re popping a pill to basically continue on without feeling the natural pain you’re supposed to. The end result is more physical damage to your body, including your organs should you take one too many pills.

Incredibly, just like with Testosterone Replacement Therapy, you can try and get away with a prescription for pain killers with the various state athletic commissions.

“If you report that you’re taking this pain medicine and you have a prescription from a doctor and you can convince the commission and the governing board that this is legitimate use and appropriate use of the medication, you can take some of these medications. Once you get up to the Dilaudid and Oxycontins and so on and so forth, that’s going to be a hard sell. I want to hear your story to make that one sound reasonable. But one thing about that is everybody knows, you ask a fighter, hey are you ready for this fight? How do you feel? ‘Oh, I’m 100%.’ That’s a lie. None of them are 100%. If they’re 100%, they didn’t train for the fight. They’re all nursing injuries — black eyes, this hurt, that hurts, and they go in there and give you the best they have. So, it’s not uncommon for contact athletes and combat athletes to need something to get through the rigors of training. But if you need as something as strong as Dilaudid which we give to terminal cancer patients when you know they’re not going to live and you just want to make them comfortable at all costs, when you’re getting into that sort of thing then everybody needs to step back and say, hey, this is a sport. What we really need to talk about is the quality of your life and what’s going on.”

The danger with so many fighters & wrestlers & football players & hockey players using these kinds of drugs is that when someone drops dead, you start to look at the deaths as merely numbers and your mind plays tricks on you to almost dehumanize what’s really going on. A guy drops dead, that’s tragic. Two or three guys commit suicide due to brain damage, you get worked up for a day or two and then it’s back to the status quo. My great fear is that what we’ve seen in pro-wrestling with the heavy death toll is what we may see down the road with the MMA industry.

“It’s absolutely a tell-tale sign in my estimation for what’s coming. If you look at any other contact or combat sports, especially in the NFL, the NHL, pain tablets, I mean, they have nicknames for [prescription drugs]. It’s not even pain medicine any more. Give me a handful of those and a handful of these. I mean… they have bottles in the training room, hundreds and hundreds of these tablets because they pass them out at half time. So, if you think that MMA is going to have a different course than what we found in the other contact & combat sports…

“The thing I would say to you is it’s endemic in these types of sports and it’s endemic on both sides. The athletes want to participate and to succeed at this type of sport you have to have a certain kind of personality. I’m not saying it’s a personality defect but you have to be a person who’s a thrill seeker to a certain degree and a person who, not saying you’re angry and you have issues, but you have to a certain amount of junkyard dog…”

Mauro also interviewed Marc Ratner yesterday about Mr. Leben’s suspension and, in his own words, he stated that he wants an independent body to do drug testing for UFC events outside the States. His terminology was “a worldwide federation to regulate the sport” so that Zuffa can’t be accused of conflict of interest by doing their own drug testing in foreign countries.

Dr. Benjamin, during his interview with Mauro, made a suggestion as to how UFC could help slow down the abuse rate of painkillers by their fighters.

“There’s a huge opportunity out there to help these guys and it takes more than just a 30 minute talk at a symposium or when they put on the UFC convention, bring in all the fighters in, which costs them a great deal of money over a couple of days and someone goes up there for 45 minutes and says, hey, these things are bad of you. it’s kind of like saying smoking is bad for you and then let’s move onto the next thing. This has to be… people are some point have to recognize, the powers that be, they’re going to have to say that no one wants to deal with this issue because it’s bad press and they think that it’s going to slow down the moneymaking machine that it is. But I say that if you don’t address it, you have bigger problems. So, the thing about it is is that at some point they’re going to have to get a confidential program in effect, it’s going to cost money. I think someone like Dana White’s going to have to step up. He and the UFC, the Fertitta Brothers, they’ve moved this sport to where it is now in large part. They have the greatest resources and they have the greatest desire to see MMA become what we all believe that it can. I believe what they’re going to have to do is set up a real program for their fighters to give them confidentially to where these guys can be monitored, all of them, not just the ones who have shown past problems because a lot of them have problems that you just don’t know about… yet.

“You have to protect athletes from themselves. They’re athletes with families. You have to make sure that these guys are protected from themselves because one thing they recognize is if they don’t compete, they don’t earn (money). See how long you cannot fight and see how long your sponsor is going to stay with you.”

The problem with suggesting UFC running a confidential drug testing program is that I don’t trust them on the issue of drug testing in the first place. Dana White’s rhetoric on Chael Sonnen’s TRT usage should be enough to persuade you that he’s not exactly going to be providing a heavy bite when it comes to cutting fighters who are moneymakers and get caught doping. Dana always says that he wants ‘the government’ to drug test his fighters. Marc Ratner’s statements yesterday match up with Zuffa company policy in that matter, so I find it hard to believe that UFC will be taking any heavy pro-active steps to slow down the usage of pain killers if they aren’t doing aggressive drug testing for PEDs.

With all of that said, Dr. Benjamin is right. If an active fighter with UFC drops dead because of drug abuse, this is going to hurt them in the court of public opinion, with politicians they’ve been trying to curry favor with, and also with potential business partners/sponsors. The problem is that if leagues the NFL, NHL, and WWE can’t figure out how to get a handle on painkiller usage, how can we expect the UFC to do any better?

Topics: MMA, Media, UFC, UK, Zach Arnold | 10 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

10 Responses to “Would a confidential drug testing program help out UFC fighters?”

  1. David M says:

    There is no answer to this. These guys, just like football players or boxers or hockey players or other people involved in activities that involve tremendous physical damage to make a lot of money in a small window of time, are going to keep taking risks. If you want to stop painkiller usage, ban combat sports/football/hockey. Otherwise, it is just wasted breath. Try telling someone with one chance to get rich that he shouldn’t take risks to escape his current life situation. It will fail. Fans don’t care how healthy or damaged their favorite stars are; Misawa literally died in the ring. These are all grown men and they can make their own decisions.

  2. Kalle says:

    The problem with letting people make their own decisions is that we as humans are horrible at assessing longterm risks. This is why we as a society have developed things like formal workplace accident prevention programs with all the bureaucracy that goes along with it. This is usually both tedious and obstructive but it’s also something that keeps people from losing their limbs to machinery while earning a living.

    Bottom line. Government regulation and enforcement is the only thing that can make a difference. Self-regulation is never going to cut it because the parties involved have too much at stake financially in the short term to give the long-term health perspective a proper consideration.

  3. Mr.roadblock says:

    How would a confidential testing program help in the Leben case? If he popped pills fight day what would that program change?

    Almost everyone relies on pain pills in training at some point or another.

    In football they talk about guys tanking shots of pain meds during broadcasts.

    These guys are in the hurt business. They have a small window to make money. Who cares if they use pain pills to compete? Someone who is an addict should get help. But for a guy using pain meds or TRT to compete, let them.

    Zach, what exactly do you want to see in MMA. 5 year careers where guys drop out of fights constantly?

    • Zach Arnold says:

      Zach, what exactly do you want to see in MMA. 5 year careers where guys drop out of fights constantly?

      My great fear is the one I always have for wrestling, which is guys show up for matches and before or after them drop dead because of a bad cocktail mixture.

  4. 45 Huddle says:

    Leben needs an intervention. Put that stuff on A&E.

    But seriously, it’s obvious he has an addictive personality. Wasn’t it alcohol problems before? And he got busted for roids. And now pain killers.

    The guy is a mess. He needs to stop fighting, and get his life back on track. I think that might be impossible while he still has the thought of a future fight in his mind.

  5. Jason says:

    Don Frye and Ken Shamrock, man I’d swear Don broke his ankle when Ken had him in those heel hooks. Then Don’s fight with Yoshida, man Don didn’t even wince when Hidehiko popped his elbow. No one tougher than Don Frye!

  6. Darkmader says:

    The drugs Leben took can be clean in 2 to 5 days depending on the dose. It’ funny how ppl say he was too injured to fight and that is why he’s dirty.

    Um…….. no, he’s on drugs and good for UFC to say that they will pay treatment for him. It’s funny though when the UFC made insurance to the fighters thing changed.

    The top guys will stick with the main event as they don’t want to be labeled a bad egg. Simple math would do it as there has been soooooooo many injuries. Prelim and regular guys fight, but then they say they tore and ACL on that fight so they can hit the free insurance.

    It’s all a gimmick like 80% of MMA is.

  7. [...] Arnold at Fight Opinion puts forward an editorial on the possible pros of confidential drug testing within the UFC [...]

  8. [...] Would Confidential Drug Testing Help the UFC? (FightOpinion.com) [...]

  9. Brynolf says:

    “Remember the ankle lock fest with Ken Shamrock in PRIDE?”

    Yeah, the most obvious fake fight in the history of MMA.

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